Thrill of the Hunt: Digging deeper into the world of Minnesota’s die-hard treasure hunters

During the “Fury presents the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt,” a hunter scours the shoreline for the Winter Carnival medallion at Tony Schmidt Park in Arden Hills around 1am Tuesday morning, January 31, 2011. (Ben Garvin / Pioneer Press)

“I’ve been at it for a long time. I missed two hunts because of more important matters (births), but I’ve had the fever since 1990… Who in his right mind would do a quick scout of the hunting grounds while on the way to the delivery room? Even with water broken, she obliged.”

– Steve Worthman, aka Map Guy, from the foreword to “St. Paul Parks: The Treasure Hunter’s Guide.”

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Treasure hunting is a sport; let there be no doubt about it. It is mental and physical, you can excel at it individually or in small teams, there’s stiff competition, a bit of drama, and hunts are events celebrated by a larger community. Some hunters go their whole life searching without a medallion find to show for it. Others rack up many in one year. What drives their dedication, determination and penchant for deductive reasoning?

I am not a treasure hunter myself, but I learned a lot about hunters—and met some great medallion hounds—when I wrote several medallion hunts in my past life on the social media and marketing squad at Summit Brewing Company. Between 2013 and 2016, the brewery sponsored the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest Medallion Search. I wrote the hunts for the first three years. While I have been told by veteran hunters that my hunts were well-written (for a newb) I had clearly dipped my toe into a subculture that ran deeper than I had ever imagined. After having my medallions found by the same two hunters two years in a row, I invited one of them to write the next year’s hunt. (How’s the saying go: If you can’t stump them, recruit them? Something like that.)

Medallion Hunters Matt Steven Sanftner (left) and Matt Koskie (right) with their medallion finds // Photo courtesy of Matt Koskie

Steven Sanftner and Matt Koskie are the power duo who found my St. Paul Summer Beer Fest medallions twice. These guys are die-hard hunters who joined forces a few years ago to utilize their specific search skills, hunt in shifts, and find a lot of medallions—at least 10 throughout the metro area this past summer. Both guys are willing to completely upend their normal lives during the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt (PPTH) and other prominent hunts to stay on the trail of the medallion. Sanftner calls himself “the coldest hunter,” sleeping in his truck during sub zero winter—perhaps getting only a few hours of sleep at a time—during the PPTH when he knows he is close to the medallion.

In Minnesota, most hunters trace their passion for treasure hunting to the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt held in conjunction with the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. Their stories usually involves their family members taking them out into the frigid Minnesota winter snowscape for their first hunt, digging, poking, and scrambling to find for the mystical Winter Carnival medallion.

Started in 1952, the PPTH is, without a doubt, the granddaddy of them all. Long ago, the hunt set the standard for medallion search rules, strategy, structure, and quality of clues. It also has the largest cash prize of all hunts: $10,000. And the winner receives a place of public honor of riding in the Winter Carnival Torchlight Parade.

Jay Kuehn, 82, of Oakdale searches for the medallion in the "Fury presents the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt" at Swede Hollow Park in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. // Photo by Ben Garvin / Pioneer Press

Jay Kuehn, 82, of Oakdale searches for the medallion in the “Fury presents the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt” at Swede Hollow Park in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 // Photo by Ben Garvin / Pioneer Press

Steve Worthman found the PPTH medallion in 2015 after 25 years of hunting. He says hunters feed off of one another’s support and involvement. Also known in the community as “Map Guy,” Worthman is so dedicated to the hunt that he’s written a St. Paul park guidebook (with an online version) to help other hunters learn more about the potential hiding places. It’s called “The Treasure Hunter’s Guide,” a great resource for both newcomers and experienced treasure hunters. Laid out in amazingly specific detail including park histories, maps, on-the-ground observations, and aerial photos taken with a kite-mounted GoPro, the book is a testament to one man’s adventures exploring every nook and cranny of St. Paul parks.

“In addition to knowing what’s in the parks, I also leverage the style of clue writing from past hunts,” said Worthman. “Knowing the limits of what old clues meant helps me keep my mind from going too deep into solving new clues. We often force clues to fit something we’re thinking and lead ourselves into a state of cognitive dissonance.”

Those who find the Winter Carnival medallion are held in legendary idol status. Those who don’t, used to have wait a year to scratch their hunting itch. However, these days, there are enough hunts to keep hunters busy for most of the year.

Steve Worthman's Treasure Hunter's Guide book // Photo Courtesy of Steve Worthman.

Steve Worthman’s Treasure Hunter’s Guide book // Photo Courtesy of Steve Worthman

Over the decades since PPTH’s inception, dozens of other hunts have been founded throughout the Twin Cities metro area, many becoming yearly favorites for hunters. Hunts are generally hosted by cities or civic groups as part of an annual festival or celebration, such as White Bear Lake’s Manitou Day Medallion Hunt, Roseville’s Golden Rose Medallion Hunt, and Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days Historic Medallion Hunt.

And when there are no official hunts with clues to dissect, die-hard hunters organize mock hunts. Someone will hide a medallion, write a series of clues, and promote it on popular treasure hunt forums and social media groups. Anyone interested in trying to find the medallion pays a small entrance fee; the person that finds the medallion wins the money. Depending on the number of hunters involved, the prize money can be nearly as much as one of the more formal hunts.

Many of the hunters I have met through my medallion hunt experience are connected through an online social network called The Cooler Crew, the members of which are united by their interest in and undying passion for treasure hunts. When you hang out with them, they talk of specific hunts like crazed sports fans talk about individual Super Bowls, World Series, or Stanley Cups: “the Cherokee Hunt of 98,” “2011 Battle Creek” “1996 – the coldest hunt ever.” They refer to memorable clues, hiding spots, and final clue, last-minutes scrambles from over the decades like canonized sports plays: these are the last-second touchdowns, walk-off homeruns, or buzzer-beaters of the treasure hunting world.

But, let it made very clear: cash prizes large and small are secondary at best to treasure hunters. What is most important is the finding the medallion, the thrill of the hunt, the pride—and bragging rights—in finding it before anyone else, and the honor of having your name listed among the long line of hunters that have come before you, many of which have achieved legendary idol status in the community.

Steve Worthman’s 2015 Medallion find, after 25 years of hunting // Video Courtesy of Nate B. 

Treasure hunt clues have gotten exponentially more layered and complex over the decades. Cracking the code of these riddles involves knowledge of history, geography, and literature; clues often play tricks using math and word play (anagrams are big in the world of clue writing). Treasure hunters tend to be good at solving crossword puzzles and word jumbles; they enjoy board games and online gaming. When not officially on the hunt, they enjoy outdoor exploring, hiking, and geocaching—activities that help them stay in shape for the physical side of treasure hunting, namely, traversing woods, hills, ditches, digging, scrambling, running, and enduring extreme winter and summer temperatures.

Ken Ng is the creator and host of the fall-time favorite D-Rex & D-Ng Medallion Hunt, a hunt which takes place on the 10 days leading up to Halloween. The hunt is an annual tribute to Ng’s young son and hunting partner who passed away; Ng puts his love and energy into organizing the hunt each year in his son’s memory. While Ng admits that medallion hunting can be very competitive, he says you shouldn’t let that sway you from giving it a try. If you’re new to it, he says, don’t worry; most, if not all hunters are open, knowledgeable, and friendly.

“It’s a good way to connect with parks, people, nature,” said Ng. “Most importantly, you learn about and become a part of other cities and towns: you buy their beer, eat their food, enjoy their festivals, watch parades, and find their medallions! I met my girlfriend—now wife—during a Saint Paul Winter Carnival hunt. Best treasure ever.”